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Vol. 3: Chef Shigetoshi Nakamura, Nakamura NYC, Niche


"I wanted to create ramen by taking every aspect into consideration: taste, volume, balance, cost, heritage, locality, and so on.  Accordingly, it was necessity that created this donburi. "


In the restaurant business, utsuwa (plates, bowls, cups, and glasses) need to be durable, especially in ramen shops that serve steaming hot soup and require fast-paced service. From a practical standpoint, using artisan-made utsuwa in ramen shops is not ideal. Nevertheless, Chef Shigetoshi Nakamura, aka Ramen God, was undaunted by this challenge and uses original utsuwa at his New York ramen restaurant, Nakamura NYC, and at his adjacent mazemen (ramen noodles with various toppings but no broth) specialty restaurant, Niche. We sat down with him and explored why and how he deals with the obstacles to artisanal utsuwa.  

  

It’s not really common to use custom-made donburi (ramen bowls) in ramen shops. Would you tell us the story behind the original donburi at Nakamura NYC?

The material itself is a fortified porcelain made in Tajimi in Gifu Prefecture. Tajimi is famous for that type of porcelain, and it’s really durable. I have used it for about two years at my restaurant, and only ten pieces or so have broken. Design-wise, it was done in New York. I basically designed the shape and hired a local graphic designer for the illustration and graphics. Our philosophy is to make use of locally produced things.

That philosophy is reflected not only in your ramen, but also in the donburi.

Yes. We have three principles that we cherish, which are aroma, ingredients, and necessity. In terms of aroma, none of the expensive, imported produce can beat local produce, which represents the aroma of the region. Since the aroma has been developed in the unique climate of each region, I like to take advantage of this unique feature. What's important here is that aroma is not only perceived by the nose, but also by the eyes. That is why I am so particular about incorporating locality into my donburi. This fortified porcelain does not have a smell, but the eye-catching graphics with iconic New York buildings and monuments help you realize that you are eating ramen in New York.


How about the shape? 

There are many things I would like to explain about the shape. First, I was very specific about the kodai (the foot of a vessel). Generally, utsuwa like bowls and cups made in the US usually don’t have kodaiIt is the foundation that makes each utsuwa beautiful, and the higher the kodai, the better, in my opinion. Japanese people place great importance on the foundation. For example, when they construct a building, they perform a ceremony to sanctify the ground. So foundations are something Japanese people really care about, and I wanted to make the kodai higher than regular utsuwa to respect that tradition.

Also, I made the shape of the kodai suehirogari [widening toward the bottom]. It’s structurally more stable, of course, but it's simply beautiful to look at. As you know, the suehirogari shape represents prosperity, so it’s a lucky shape, in a sense. I always want my ramen to be enjoyed by as many customers as possible. However, the suehirogari-shaped kodai makes the donburi production very difficult. Since it is mass-produced using molds, this style make the donburi harder to remove from a mold.


I did not notice such details. My eyes were just drawn to the graphic patterns. 

Of course, graphics are important. I wanted to create something that incorporated ramen and New York. For example, the Statue of Liberty is doing “tenku-otoshi” [Chef Nakamura’s signature move to drain ramen noodles––the direct meaning is “a drop from sky-high”], and the waves of the water replicate noodles. These all seem like tiny things, but it is really costly to do them all.

That is why people usually don’t make original ramen donburi.

It is not practical from a financial point of view. But throughout my 20 years of experience in the ramen industry, I began to think that details would influence the next generation. Then I thought about what the previous generation in the ramen industry did. I realized that that generation established the foundation of the ramen industry, which led to the current ramen boom. Thanks to that foundation, my generation can explore and expand the cuisine. 

Now, what can my generation of ramen chefs do for the next generation? What I do at Niche, promoting a new style of ramen like mazemen [ramen with toppings but no broth] is one example. It can boost ramen sales in the summer, when it usually drops. Japanese people eat hiyashi chuka [cold ramen noodles with sweet-and-sour soy sauce] in the summer, but Americans don’t. So I am expanding mazemen to appeal to American palates by incorporating thick-cut beef in Steak Mazemen and smoked salmon and ikura [salmon roe] in Russ & Roe, for example. Similarly, when I created my original donburi, I thought about the next generation of ramen chefs and the industry. In fact, many people who plan to open ramen restaurants buy this donburi.

Buy the donburi?

Yes. It’s a good model for them because the structure of this donburi is meticulously calculated. Let me explain. In my opinion, the more flavorful the soup is, the tastier. But how can we make soup more flavorful? The answer is to make soup with more base ingredients––in other words, make a thick soup. However, if you add more ingredients, the cost is going to rise. Then I figured out a way to adjust the shape of the donburi to make the ramen look perfect with less soup. This donburi enables us to serve perfect ramen that has 20% less soup but the same amount of base ingredients, resulting in a more flavorful soup. And I can do that without raising the price. 

Wow, that’s an eye-opening fact! Shape, graphics, kodai … every element is related and contributes to the taste of your ramen and to your business. 

That’s right. I am so happy that you asked about my dedication to utsuwa! Utsuwa can do a great job even though it does not say anything. 

As I said, necessity is one of our philosophies. I wanted to create ramen by taking every aspect into consideration: taste, volume, balance, cost, heritage, locality, and so on.  Accordingly, it was necessity that created this donburi.

Also, for a ramen shop, donburi can be a canvas filled with messages. Take my donburi, for example—it’s functional, beautiful, and makes a statement. The high kodai does not easily get hot even if the ramen is piping hot, and this allows customers to hold the donburi without burning their hands. The kodai also represents Japanese aesthetics and traditions. The material is fortified porcelain, so it’s durable. The graphic design with local icons represents where we are located. Since we are based in New York, we use New York icons, but ramen shops in Seattle can design bowls using their city’s icons. This kind of ramen donburi style is not common yet, but I hope it will become the industry standard. That is one thing that our generation of ramen chefs and entrepreneurs can hand down to the next generation. 


How about the utsuwa at Niche. It’s completely different from the donburi at Nakamura NYC. It’s flat and rustic with no logo on it. Did you use a local artist?

Yes. We commissioned a Massachusetts-based potter, Jordan Colón, to make our utsuwa. I chose a flat style because a flat plate can present food more beautifully than a deep bowl, in my opinion. Since mazemen does not have broth, the utsuwa doesn’t need to be a deep donburi shape. If there is no curve at the rim, however, it’s hard to eat noodles from it. So, I asked him to raise the rim a little bit. In a way, it’s a halfway donburi. 

But the main reason why I fell in love with Jordan’s utsuwa is the feel when I touched it. People usually don’t hold donburi while eating steaming hot ramen soup, but mazemen is not burning hot. So I want customers to touch and hold this utsuwa while enjoying mazemen. The feel of this pottery can be obtained only through firing it in a wood kiln. It would take days to explain the details, but to make it short, Jordan's approach of respecting traditional methods and making use of them in the modern world is perfectly aligned with my approach to ramen.

Are you introducing a new ramen donburi at Nakamura NYC?

Yes. It’s an upgraded version of the current one. The first one uses a single color for the graphics, but this new, second version uses two colors, and adds new icons like the Oculus. It also features the word “Reiwa” in kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese writing) because this year marks the first year of the Reiwa era, the new era under the new emperor in Japan. his donburi will be unveiled this November.


Nakamura NYC

172 Delancey St., New York, NY 10002

Niche

172 Delancey St., (Adjacent to Nakamura NYC)

New York, NY 10002


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